The History of my Family: image via BBC

The History of my Family: image via BBC

Last night, a new documentary series entitled The Secret History of my Family started on BBC Two. What could have been a somewhat clunky programme – mixing animation with actors, real-life descendants of historical characters commenting on events, and a healthy dose of modern day class politics – actually worked surprisingly well.

The premise is that we start with some Victorian characters – from different classes – and are told their story. The key difference to other history series is that here, the descendants of those characters have been traced, and it is they who tell the story of their ancestors, and attempt to explore how those ancestors have made them the people they are today.

So last night, in the first episode, we looked at the three Gadbury sisters – thieving girls from the Shoreditch area, who found that in 1837, their luck  ran out. One was simply jailed; the other two, in their teens, were transported to Australia for seven years (as one participant commented, this was effectively a life sentence, for the girls would not have had the money to return to the UK after their sentences expired).

The programme concentrated primarily on these two transported sisters (perhaps because the descendants of the third had not moved far, still being in the same area of London as their criminal relation, and seeing their success today in terms of ‘she’s never been in court’).

The programme makers clearly wanted to stress the class issue – one set of descendants were deemed to be ‘working class’ and the other high achieving, educated professionals. This was slightly stymied by the Australians’ insistence that they did not live in a class-based society; yet it was the wealthier set of relations who insisted this, more than the ones who had grown up with less.

One interesting point that was made, but perhaps not explored enough, was the impact of where people were transported to on their subsequent lives. One sister was transported to Hobart, where so many were also convicts or former convicts that there was little stigmatism. Individuals therefore had the chance to thrive and make a life for themselves. It was the family of this sister who became particularly successful, one descendant becoming Premier of Tasmania, another becoming a judge, a third being a Labour MP.

The other sister had been sent to work as a servant in Sydney, in an area where there were more free settlers, and therefore greater stigmatism and antagonism shown towards convicts. Under these conditions, individuals may well have felt more stifled and less likely to achieve. I’d love to have heard more about this possibility.

I didn’t particularly like the choice of modern day child actors to read the girls’ words – told to a 19th century social investigator, William Miles – as they looked, well, too modern; I’d have preferred to have heard the words without seeing faces attached to them, and to have imagined what their speakers would have looked like. But the premise of getting their descendants to tell the rest of their stories was a surprisingly effective presentation technique, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

If you’re quick, you can watch the first episode here. For some background on the Gadbury sisters, read this post by Dr Heather Shore, who was an advisor on the programme.